Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The non-existence of a 'specific unionist culture' is UK's strength.

Seeking to deconstruct nationalism to its essential components, Richard English, in his magisterial history of the phenomenon in Ireland, identifies community, struggle and power as markers indicative of the ideology. He further divides the first marker into a sub set of characteristics – culture, history, perceived common origin, exclusiveness and so forth.

It is a systemic treatment of the topic which doesn’t presume that any such requirements necessarily exist organically, much less that they are primordial by nature. Proto national traits may nurture nationalisms, but it is truer to suppose that nationalisms generally invent nations, rather than the other way about. English does not submit to an assumption that nationalism’s prescriptions are necessary to successfully define a nation state. He does not assume that nationalism is an innately superior means by which to order nation states.

To my mind, his is a rather good definition, because it attempts to characterise the phenomenon without succumbing to an evaluation by its own terms. It steps outside the vocabulary which nationalism has developed in order to justify itself and in so doing avoids the type of circular thinking which nationalist commentators are often guilty of. Certainly it is a better attempt than that offered by Partick Murphy, Irish News columnist, at the outset of an article which is more preoccupied with unionism.

“Nationalism, Irish or otherwise, is easy to define. It usually consists of a shared political identity, within a recognised geographical area, and supported by common cultural features such as language, literature, music, dance, sport and customs.”

The contrast with English’s reading is stark – nationalism here is straightforward, obvious, buttressed by evidence. I have objected before to Murphy’s easy nationalist assumptions. He wrote a shoddy, generalising piece which attacked Britishness both as a nationality and as an identity, on the basis that it could not be defined by nationalism’s cultural prescriptions. His latest offering suggests that he is making some attempt to re-examine the interface between cultural identity and political belief, but still cannot quite reconcile himself to the fact that a particular political nationality need not attach itself to a mono-culture.

An odd aspect to the article is that, several times, Murphy comes rather close to acknowledging something of the fundamentals of unionism as a political philosophy, but, like a dog tethered to a rope, whilst he gnaws at his own creed’s attitude to unionists, he is ultimately unable to free himself of its assumptions, and he resorts to the tested clich├ęs of recalcitrance and culturelessness. At least Murphy is asking the question, albeit that his ability to furnish an answer is hampered by reluctance to set aside a set of criteria into which unionism stubbornly refuses to fit.

“So what are the characteristics of unionism? It has a political identity – union with Britain – but it is rather vague on geography and remarkably weak on culture.”

It is an instructive start, because Murphy has laid down the markers by which he intends to define unionism and they are the exactly same markers which shape his understanding of nationalism. He does not pause to consider whether unionism might have a distinct set of characteristics which do not necessarily comply with the categories which nationalism prescribes. It is an approach which I criticised in his piece about Britishness, when the author attempted to fit the concept with a nationalist straight-jacket. When Murphy correctly contends, “in terms of a specifically unionist culture, there is none”, he has stumbled upon a singular truth, but what he identifies as weakness is actually part of the essential fabric of modern and inclusive unionism.

It is not necessary to assemble a political identity around a ‘specific culture’ (whatever that might consist in). Unionism offers the thesis that the United Kingdom is the best means by which to govern the territory covered by its four component parts. It does not require its adherents to conform to any cultural preconditions, but rather draws its strength from all the identities which it pools, as well as an overarching framework of values, language, common institutions and shared history.

So far from subsisting in three counties of Ulster (as Murphy suggests), unionism is an idea common to the entire United Kingdom. Far from basing itself around a single culture, or being possessed of none, unionism spans many. Whilst Murphy might be happy to characterise TUV supporters’ hostile reaction to Bairbre de Bruin’s Irish speech at the election count as indicative of unionism, I identified in it nothing which colours my unionist inclinations.

He is right that unionists can and should share in culture unique to the island of Ireland, if that is where they live, but he is wrong to suppose that if more unionists do embrace a sense of themselves as Irish, that nationalism will benefit politically. The United Kingdom already encompasses a myriad of identities and sub-identities of which Irishness is merely one ,and that pluriculturalism contributes to the UK’s strength as a political entity. Embracing Irishness is entirely compatible with a strong sense of Britishness, indeed relaxing about the former would help some Ulster unionists to take a less distorted view of the latter.

There is much that is well meaning in Murphy’s article. There is also much that is deeply patronising. And its internal contradiction is that whilst it sets out to propose that nationalists should aim not to estrange unionists from the Irish component of their identity, it singularly fails to recognise that expressing that Irish identity does not entail a corresponding shift towards allegiance to an all-Ireland state.


Gaw said...

Excellent discussion. From the other side, Peter Hitchens tries to sustain the unsustainable in the idea of a British monoculture: I discuss this here. Isn't it strange that both a supporter and an antagonist of Britishness seem to misunderstand the concept despite living with it intimately?

Chekov said...

Thanks Gaw. Enjoyed your article. I wouldn't have expected more from Hitchens to be fair. As you intimate, he has a mind which is incapable of moderation, whichever direction it decides to take.